“When at the top, I asked myself if I wanted to leave Sabah for my posting to the South Pacific. The cold wind bit at my ears but did not give a hint. But was this not what I had worked for, to get promoted and to travel?”

At a crossroads

THERE were two things I had to do before I left Sabah in 1981. The first was to attend a company general management course at the training college of Unilever Plc in Surrey, England. The college was set in acres of grounds hidden from the small lane at Kingston-Upon-Thames. It was aptly named Four Acres.

Tall hedges hid a Tudor-style building of black pillars and white walls. In the main building was the large reception hall, next to it was the dining hall, and further back were the squash courts. A long swimming pool, which was heated and indoors, was at the end of the wing on the right.

A walk outdoors would take you to the tennis court. Behind the building on the mown grass and among the leafy oak trees, you would find grey squirrels looking for food. Large pigeons landed near you, knowing that in this area they were safe.

As a participant, I would not know if I was completely safe. The director of the college, John McCafferty, an amiable man with a white beard, had told us on the first evening that for five weeks we would be listening to the professors who had arrived from Harvard, Insead and Imede and each of them would hand out case studies to read.

We could form into syndicates and discuss, and each would pick a leader to go in front of the class to reason out our findings. In general, we could enjoy our stay, and do what we liked, and there would be no report to our respective offices on how we did.

Even if we did not believe the last part, we kept our thoughts to ourselves. It was unlikely that any of us had met, about 30 participants from Holland, Nigeria, West Indies, England, Scotland, India, France, Germany, South Africa and other parts of the Unilever world.

We chatted more only after we took turns introducing ourselves, adding a few words about what we did. Most were in the business of manufacturing and marketing, and selling fast-moving consumer goods, such as Sunlight or Dove soap, Omo in Africa and Planta margarine and ice cream in many markets. As a planter, I felt out of place.

My misgivings proved to be correct. After class each day, I would read the thick case studies, and it would take me a while to understand what I was reading.

I highlighted many sentences. Usually, it was about a big company where sales had dropped each year, and the question was what one would do to get them booming again.

A planter is not exposed to a processing factory and does no marketing, sales or trading. Any cash flow crunch is not his concern. He runs a plantation, leads the supervisors and workers, and checks on costs.

High crop production depended on planning and checking in the fields, regular rainfall and bright sunshine would do the rest. If well-managed, plantations would earn high revenue for the head office.

Each month it would send back money for expenses. A planter does not need to know more. Now I had to learn new words, which the rest of the class already knew.

This was a course for general management, where balance sheets were a part of life. Other parts were negotiation skills in sales, knowing what to do against defaults, and ensuring that letters of credit were faultless.

Ageing of receivables was part of class discussions. Everything was accountable. I tried to cope with those issues and I found light relief in acting as part of the role-playing exercise in front of the class for my syndicate which did quite well, such as in advertising for toothpaste and personal products.

I saw some of the participants were being over-competitive and trying too hard to impress.

However, at the role-playing exercises, they too let their guards down and flung themselves into it, even if they flubbed their lines.

The stress also eased up when I played squash, swam or walked under the oak trees in between classes. On one weekend I got a lift from a participant to Lake District at Keswick, where he rejoined his family, and I stayed alone in a hotel for two nights until he picked me up for the ride back.

It rained on the lake and I saw not a single dancing daffodil that William Wordsworth described in his poem. However, on another weekend I stayed with the family of the chairman of the plantations group, R.G. Dawson, at Leatherhead. He was the manager in Pamol, Kluang in the 1950s, and I felt good talking about palm trees and why crops went down for unaccountable reasons, even in his day.

Over breakfast, he asked if I found the course useful. I said it was an opportunity to discuss strategies as in the case studies in class. Ideas from other industries have added to my knowledge. A taciturn man, he did not question me further.

The second thing I had to do was climb Mount Kinabalu, and I planned that when I returned to Sabah. I had seen the peaks many times from the window of the Fokker Friendship plane. Over the white blanket of clouds, the Kinabalu peaks loomed and you could see the stark edges of the rocks and the waterfalls that streamed down its face. I wanted to reach its peak one day and that had been put off until now.

I planned to go with the senior supervisor Samsudin Pongo, and he was glad to get a few more supervisors to go along.

It was a tough climb with the steep path. The Kadazan guide, older than me, was much fitter and patient with my slow progress. I decided to stop and take a short nap in a cave by the trail, while Samsudin waited.

I got a full night’s rest when we were at the shelter near the peak. Before dawn, we were up again, climbing more steps and taking a long walk on the gentle slope of the rocks just as the rays of the sun started to show. The wind kept the small red and yellow blooms low among the cracks. It was a big domain up there. I could feel it was a place to revere.

When at the top, I asked myself if I wanted to leave Sabah for my posting to the South Pacific. The cold wind bit at my ears but did not give a hint. But was this not what I had worked for, to get promoted and to travel?

The writer has extensive experience in the management of oil palm plantations.

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